Students at all levels are learning to balance schoolwork, extracurricular activities and relationships. Spring is on the horizon, and with it comes a slew of testing, including standardized state tests and AP exams. (It’s a good time to start reviewing US History, World History, Reading and Writing Strategies, Math Skills and, of course, Vocabulary!) Navigating all of these pressures is its own challenge.
So when we read Heidi Grant Halvorson’s Nine Ways Successful People Defeat Stress, we immediately thought of stressed out students (and teachers!). Halvorson writes for adults in the workplace, but the basic tenets she presents are invaluable for students as well. Here are Halvorson’s 9 stress-defeating tips, and our suggestions for implementing them at the student level.
1. Have self-compassion.
“Most of us believe that we need to be hard on ourselves to perform at our best, but it turns out that’s 100 percent wrong,” writes Halvorson. While discipline and drive are vital components to academic success, it’s also important to remind students to be kind to themselves. Everyone fails sometimes, and it’s OK. Beating yourself up about a bad test score or a forgotten homework assignment is a waste of valuable energy. Instead, take a breath, forgive yourself, learn from the mistake and set off to conquer the next assignment with renewed zeal. Letting go of mistakes reduces stress and leads to more success in the long run, which leads us to…
2. Remember the “Big Picture.”
When a single task on your to-do list is getting you down — say, completing 20 math problems or grading 30 essays — try reframing the task in terms of a bigger goal. Maybe “completing 20 math problems” could be “practice for the next exam,” “a chance to raise my grade,” “a higher grade point average” and even eventually “more options for applying to college.” And maybe “grading 30 essays” could be “helping my students succeed.” Menial tasks can be irksome and difficult, especially for students who often have work to do in a subject they don’t think is valuable. If a task feels worthless, students can try reframing it in terms of goals they really care about: “graduating,” “getting into my dream school” or even “not having to go to summer school.”
3. Rely on routines.
Did you know that making a decision, even about something as small as what to eat for lunch or what shirt to wear, is a stressful process? We sure didn’t! But it turns out routines can help us eliminate excess hemming and hawing, and extra stress, from our days. Encouraging students do things at the same time every day can dramatically reduce stress levels. It’s not easy, but always doing homework at a certain time and — dare we say it? — going to bed at a specific hour can give students (and teachers) more time and head space during the evening to relax and recharge.
4. Take five (or ten) minutes to do something you find interesting.
Hopefully we are all taking the time to do things we find interesting. But you might be more inclined to set aside those 5-10 minute windows when you learn that they will actually help replenish your energy. In fact, if you find this interesting, set aside time today to read the research that backs it up. Keep in mind that “interesting” by these standards implies “increased motivation, effort, attention, and persistence,” — i.e., your favorite TV show is unlikely to qualify. But if you opt to, say, build a Lego fortress or do a Sudoku puzzle, you are likely to find you have extra energy than you had to begin with. Encourage your students to do something challenging and fun for a few minutes a day. Learn to juggle! Teach the dog a new trick! Paint with watercolors! Write a rap song! The possibilities are endless.
5. Add where and when to your to-do list.
Do you wish you could trick your brain into nudging you to complete tasks on your to-do list? Psychologists have discovered that you can, using “if-then” statements. Much like relying on routines, this is a great tip for students who procrastinate or have trouble getting motivated to start their homework each night. Rather than putting “do homework” on a checklist, write “If it is 4pm, then I will do my homework.” Sounds silly, but, according to Halvorson, this “can double or triple your chances of actually doing it.” Like it or not, your brain will start to unconsciously look for clues that it’s time to get cracking on that essay (or that stack of essays that need grading).
6. Use “if-thens” for positive self-talk.
The power of the if-then statement continues if we use it to target our common stress triggers. You can encourage older students to identify the thing that stresses them out the most, and then create an if-then statement about how they would like to react. “If I don’t do well on this exam, I will stay calm and focus on preparing for the next one.” “If I lose a game, I will take a deep breath and relax.” “If I get frustrated with an assignment, then I will take a break and come back to it.”
7. See your work in terms of progress, not perfection.
Halvorson identifies two mindsets that we all use to approach goals: “the Be-Good mindset,” which is based on proving that you already excel, and the “Get-Better mindset,” which focuses on developing and learning so that you will excel. “You can think of it as the difference between wanting to show that you are smart versus wanting to get smarter,” she writes.
When we approach things through the “Be-Good” mindset, we expect ourselves to be totally perfect, especially compared to everyone else. If things don’t go according to plan, we start to doubt ourselves, which makes us less likely to ultimately succeed.
The “Get-Better” outlook encourages self-comparison instead of comparison with peers, and emphasizes making progress. Again, this approach asks that we be kind to ourselves: expect mistakes and let them go. We can encourage students to evaluate their own progress. Instead of “I failed because I got a B and he got an A,” try, “I succeeded because I got a B- on the last essay and a B on this one — I’m getting better.” Getting adolescents not to compare themselves to their peers is impossible, but we can remind them that they are improving and that we notice, and that getting better — not being perfect — is the goal.
8. Think about the progress that you’ve already made.
Instead of focusing on how much we have left to do, we can pat ourselves on the back for everything we’ve done so far. Having 11 chapters left to read is pretty dismal — but having 5 already read is pretty great! Focusing on small wins can give us the mojo we need to keep moving towards a larger goal. We can help reinforce small wins for individuals (like completing an outline for an essay) or for entire classes (“Together we got through 50 years of US History!”).
9. Know whether optimism or defensive pessimism works best for you.
Everyone has his or her own motivational style. “Reaching for the stars” isn’t for everyone — some people are just as effectively motivated by keeping their heads above water. Recognize that an optimistic eagerness to succeed isn’t necessarily less healthy or powerful than what Halvorson describes as “hearty skepticism.” Focusing on preventing failure is a better approach for some. What’s important is that each student figures out what works for her.
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We hope that Halvorson’s tips inspire you to take deep breaths and address your stress. Encourage your students to start learning how to manage stress early. Stress is a part of life, and even though “finding balance in the face of stress” won’t be a topic on any of the standardized tests this spring, it is one of the most important lessons students can take with them through their academic years and beyond.